America over the top on threats

By Jonathan Power

Even taking into account the terrorist bomb attack on the Boston marathon an American has had less chance this year of being killed by a terrorist than killed falling off a ladder. Is it really necessary to monitor the phone calls and e-mails of half the world in order to combat such a small threat (including countries such as Brazil which have never had a terrorist incident)?

Why not monitor the use of ladders? Or find a way of reducing car crashes in the US which claim 33,000 deaths a year to the Swedish level? Or spend the vast budget of the spy program on education and give up hunting down Edward Snowden who has performed the brave task of opening up this debate to media and congressional scrutiny? And just keep a very modest intelligence spying operation for the handful of countries that could produce a terrorist that might do some real damage- Afghanistan, Pakistan, Lebanon, Yemen, Somalia, North Korea……….Can you think of any more?

According to the widely respected Pew Research Centre, 70% of the membership of the New York-based, elite, Council on Foreign Relations believe that the world is as dangerous as it was during the Cold War. This is so wide of the mark as to be unbelievable. The Cold War threatened mutual nuclear annihilation and the number of wars has gone down sharply the last 20 years. The first decade of this century saw fewer deaths from war than any decade in the last century. The West faces no plausible enemy that could attack it nor any foreseeable one.

Moreover, it is a much better world than a generation ago. Infant mortality the world over has fallen sharply, including in Africa. Life expectancy has sharply increased in just about every country on our planet. The number of democracies or near democracies has grown at an amazing rate since the end of the Second World War.

Of course there are challenges – the current ones are Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, North Korea, Syria, Somalia, the Congo and Palestine/Israel. Depending on the situation one or other of the existing tools of diplomacy, economic sanctions or peacekeeping can do as good a job as can be done of ameliorating them. As for Russia, President Vladimir Putin’s various crackdowns and alleged tolerance of corruption are no threat to any other country. China wants a peaceful and stable world so its trade can continue to boost its phenomenal economic progress. At worst, China threatens islands in the South China Sea. Its military spending is one ninth of that of the US. Its budget and deployments are increasing but there are no indications that there will be “a great leap forward”, to use Mao Tse-tung’s phrase.

Iran is no threat either, despite Mitt Romney claiming during the last presidential campaign that an Iranian nuclear weapon is the “the greatest threat the world faces.” Making a bomb is considered by the country’s leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to be against Islamic teaching. Iran hasn’t been to war for over 200 years and who does it want to fight now?

With honest, fair and reasonable negotiations Iran could be persuaded to keep uranium enrichment below the 20% mark (and 4% for new projects) which would make impossible any progress towards bomb construction. Moreover, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Iran’s “military forces have almost no modern armour, artillery, aircraft or major combat ships”. (The same situation as Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, despite all the hype then that he was the world’s number one trouble maker.)

“Loose nukes” was a threat when the Cold War ended, especially in Russia and other ex-Soviet republics, but no longer. The worry was that a poorly protected nuclear bomb would end up in the hands of some terrorist group. Indeed, security and bomb accounting were woefully inadequate. But cooperative Russian-US efforts in improving security have been effective. In fact, both before and after this program there have been no thefts or we would know about them by now.

Pakistan’s fast growing nuclear weapons’ program has also posed a risk. But these days US aid with security, including locks, has sharply diminished the dangers. Secretary of Defence Robert Gates said in 2010 that the US is “very comfortable with the security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons”.

“Threat exaggeration” is a tool of the military-industrial-academic complex in order to enhance internal vested interests. Without its influence the US defence budget would be cut sharply, as would the income of the arms suppliers. Hundreds of congressmen would loose the finance that these companies give them in return for their pro-military lobbying efforts. The thousands of academics that are beholden to Defence Department research contracts would lose a major source of funds.

Could the US ever have an honest discussion about supposed threats? If President Barack Obama has not opened one who will?

Copyright: Jonathan Power 2013

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